Time. Wood. Smoke. Heat. All are ingredients to a real barbecue. Carolina BBQ, however, adds one other essential element: a whole hog.
Written By: Colleen Thompson Photography By: Denny Culbert
Using “everything except the squeal,” to quote writer, Upton Sinclaire, whole hog barbecue, might just be one of the most delicious and obsessed over slow cooked culinary traditions there is. As barbecue goes, it stands apart from other styles. Embedded in tradition, it has garnered the distinction of a rooted, Carolina foodway.
Sam Jones is a man who knows a thing or two about the subject. You see, Jones is a third generation pitmaster and operator of Skylight Inn BBQ, which was originally opened in 1947 by his grandfather in Ayden, North Carolina. Both the Skylight Inn and Jones have become icons in the world of barbecue, earning a James Beard in 2003 for “America’s Classics,” and again in 2018 as a nominee for Best Chef Southeast.
Across Eastern North Carolina, ‘cue’ means a whole pig that’s cooked slowly over wood until perfectly tender, then chopped up (not pulled) with bits of crispy skin, and mixed with a vinegar-based sauce, before being devoured alongside cornbread or piled high on a bun.
“I’m a product of that barbecue, having eaten it all my life. I’m also a product of my community and my state. There’s always a Yeti cooler full of Cheerwine, the beloved cherry-flavored soda and North Carolina’s finest elixir, in the back of my Super Duty pickup.”
The truck is also equipped with lights and sirens because it doubles as an emergency vehicle—Jones just happens to be the fire chief in Ayden. It’s hard not to laugh at the irony of his two callings: building fires and putting them out.
“In my mind, barbecue is whole hog cooked over wood. I say that because I was raised in Eastern North Carolina, and that’s all we’ve ever done,” says Jones. The steps Jones takes to cook his hogs, are no different than the ones taken a century ago. “My granddaddy Pete Jones always said, ‘If it’s not cooked with wood it’s not barbecue.’” More than just the sum of its parts, the technique is very physical and painstakingly slow. To do it right, you need time—about 12 to 24 hours. You need the strength: to haul a 200 pound animal carcass to the pit. You need wood: a lot of split oak.
“In Eastern North Carolina, we don’t eat our pork pulled. We chop it. The ingredients for our chopped barbecue are simple, but don’t go thinking it’s just pork and vinegar. The pork has to have the right ratio of lean meat, fatty meat, and crispy skin,” explains Jones. When you consider that it’s been a part of history and heritage for more than 300 years (making it the oldest continuous form of barbecue in the United States), it’s easy to understand the pride and passion that North Carolinians have for whole-hog barbecue.
John Shelton Reed, co-author of “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue,” tells us that the technique most likely originated in the Caribbean in the 1500s, when pigs were first introduced to the islands. It flourished in the South when Caribbean-born slaves brought the style of cooking to North Carolina and would cook whole animals to feed large groups of people often as a celebratory feast for the end of harvest season. When they needed something acidic to flavor the sauce, they settled for vinegar, because lemons—their preferred ingredients—didn’t grow anywhere in the state.
Only a few dozen authentic, whole-hog barbecue joints remain in North Carolina. The skill, tradition, process and length of time required for it to come together, makes it celebratory. “I think the time-consuming part of it makes it less appealing for people to do. So, when it does happen, it’s a big deal. Also, there is a social element that exists with whole-hog that other things lack,” says Jones.
“Barbecue has always been about community for the Jones family. “We’ve learned a thing or two about building bonds with barbecue pits. Build a block pit in your backyard, and you’ll be surprised how quickly and easily you can bring a community together.”
In their book Whole Hog BBQ, Sam Jones and co-author Daniel Vaughn share step-by-step instructions for cooking a whole hog at home. They also share memories and stories along with classic family recipes, including cornbread, coleslaw, spare ribs, smoked turkey, country-style steak, and pig pickin’ cake.
EASTERN NORTH CAROLINA BARBECUE SAUCE Makes about 1 quart
We have both a sweet barbecue sauce and a vinegar sauce that we bottle. The vinegar sauce is not the same vinegar mixture we pour over the hogs as they’re chopped, but some folks like to pour a little on their barbecue sandwiches whether or not we think they need to. That’s why we refer to it at the restaurant as “table sauce.” I liken this style of sauce to a dressing than a sauce. It is thin, and shouldn’t be overapplied. A straightforward, simple, vinegar based sauce elevates the natural flavor of pork. Some sort of magical thing takes place with the acidity in the vinegar and the natural fat in hogs.
3 cups apple cider vinegar 1⁄2 cup sugar 2 tablespoons crushed red pepper 2 tablespoons ground black pepper 1 tablespoon chili powder 1⁄3 cup Texas Pete Hot Sauce 1⁄2 cup bottled barbecue sauce (sweet) In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients and mix until the sugar is well dissolved. Alternatively, place in a jar with a tight fitting lid and shake vigorously until the ingredients are combined. BISCUIT PUDDING WITH CHOCOLATE GRAVY Serves 12 to 15
The best thing my grandmother gave to my mom, including my dad, is the recipe for her biscuit pudding. The best thing mom ever made, besides me, is this biscuit pudding with chocolate gravy. I haven’t found the verse yet, but I think somewhere the Bible says that biscuit pudding was really the reason that Lazarus was raised from the dead. My mom also made a chocolate gravy that she poured over the top. That also may have been what Jesus rubbed on the blind man’s eyes.
Grandma Jones didn’t make this dessert all the time, but when she did, she’d always send me home packing a big square of it. I once took it to school to eat at lunch. A few at my table were curious about it, and asked for a taste. I actually got in a little trouble for trying to share that biscuit pudding for fifty cents a square. The administration wasn’t having it something about a noncompete clause so I had to stop. It was an early taste of being an entrepreneur.
Pudding 3 (9.5ounce) cans Butter Me Not Biscuits or any canned biscuit with “butter” or “buttery” in the description 4 cups whole milk, at room temperature 1 cup salted butter, melted 4 cups sugar 5 large eggs, at room temperature 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg 1 teaspoon vanilla extract Chocolate Gravy 1⁄4 cup cocoa powder 1 cup sugar 3 tablespoons all purpose flour Pinch of kosher salt 2 cups whole milk 1⁄4 cup cold salted butter, cubed
To make the pudding, crack the biscuit cans open on the edge of the counter. I thought it was so cool when my mom did that. Bake the biscuits according to the instructions on the can. Set the oven temperature at 350°F. Grease a 9 by 13 – inch baking pan. Combine the milk, butter, sugar, eggs, nutmeg, and vanilla in the bowl of a stand mixer or food proces – sor. Mix to combine.
Crumble the biscuits by hand into the mixture. Continue to mix until relatively smooth. Pour into the prepared pan. Bake for 45 minutes,or until the pudding is stiff and lightly browned on top. While the pudding is baking, make the gravy. Sift the cocoa, sugar, flour, and salt together into a 12 – inch skillet. Slowly pour in the milk, while whisking, and continue to whisk until the mixture is smooth. Cook over medium-high heat, while stirring, until the gravy thickens to the consistency of a thin pudding, about 8 minutes. Take the pan off the heat and add the cubed butter. Stir until the butter is melted and the gravy is smooth. To serve, place a scoop of pudding into each bowl and top with a ladleful of gravy.
Reprinted with permission from Whole Hog BBQ by Sam Jones & Daniel Vaughn, copyright © 2019. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc.